In a new guidebook to happy dogs, co-authors Melissa Starling and Paul McGreevy, both of whom are PhD behaviourists, reveal how dogs think, what they do (and don’t) want, and how best to obtain “good dog” behaviour from our pups.
They do this in an engaging yet erudite manner (not easy to achieve) packaged in a very attractive volume full of instructive and illuminating photos. The following excerpt is a fine example of their straightforward style of communication.
Humans value fun enormously, and it seems we are not the only ones. Fun is hard to define. While the dictionary simplifies it to enjoyment and amusement, the connotations are of playfulness and even purity of purpose.
Fun is smiles and laughter, games and play. Dogs are undeniably a playful species. Unlike their ancestral counterparts, they play well into old age and many are not fussy about who they play with.
Play is considered one of the few activities to be reliably and universally associated with a positive emotional state, so it is unsurprising that it can be a powerful reward for dogs; one they might prefer even over food.
Yet, play is a concept that defies definition. It might be best defined by the emotional state of the performer. Humans are not always good at identifying whether a dog is having fun or not, but there are signs that can be revealing.
For example, a dog that keeps returning to an activity that is energetically costly with no obvious payoffs, such as jumping on a bed or trampoline, running through piles of leaves, bounding through tall grass, or running ahead when they have guessed where the group is going, is showing that this activity is valuable to them.
If no other reward is evident, other than the activity itself, then we must assume the dog finds the activity rewarding. A good example of activities with inbuilt rewards can be seen in herding dogs – they work for us not because they share our goal of moving livestock down a hillside and into a pen but because the very act of herding is rewarding in itself.
Some activities require effort to commence, such as climbing up a sand dune or a slide in a playground only to turn around and run, jump, or slide back down again.
How instantaneously the dog dives into his descent and gets his payoff can give us a clue as to how deliberate and pre-planned the action is. The dog might also indicate his enjoyment of an activity through his body language.
Playful body language includes exaggerated movements of the head and limbs, unnecessarily energetic leaps and bounds, vocalizations such as barking and growling and, usually, a softness and looseness in the face and throughout the body.
Dogs might have different preferences when it comes to playful signals. And dogs of different breeds have preferred play styles. For Paul, this was confirmed the first time he witnessed Bundy encountering a fellow Labrador retriever.
The play bows, body wriggles, and hindquarter bounces were articulated in fluent Labradorese. Kivi is one for tossing his head like a pony and running in big, exaggerated bounds, or flopping abruptly on the ground and barking until someone comes over to tickle or climb on him or (Erik!) bite his genitals.
Erik is more intense and uses little growls and barks, but his tail wags are loose and his ears not as erect and forward-pointing as they would be if he were threatening another dog.
To invite play, Bundy cavorts with his tail held almost as if it is chasing him. Meanwhile, Nev will ostentatiously pick up oversized sticks, logs and even branches as if they are the most prized of all possessions only to then deliberately drop them in the path of other dogs.
The muscles that move his lips and muzzle are also more relaxed, and when he makes contact with another dog he turns to one side at the last moment so that contact is largely made with the “safe” parts of his body, including his flanks, hindquarters, or shoulders.
A sense of humour?
It has not officially been established if dogs have a sense of humour, but they do use a vocalisation that has been dubbed a “dog laugh.” It has attracted this beguiling label because it occurs exclusively during play or friendly greetings.
The dog laugh sounds like a breathy, forced exhalation and dogs usually respond to it with playful behaviour and sometimes their own dog laugh. It has recently been reported that playbacks of the dog laugh reduce signs of stress and increase social approach behaviours in shelter dogs.
A human whispering to a dog, especially in an excited manner, can produce a similar response, so it’s possible that dogs interpret pronounced, breathy exhalations from humans as a dog laugh. Before you try this yourself with the next dog you encounter, it pays to be aware that breathing (or whistling) very close to a dog’s face can annoy it.
If dogs did have a sense of humour, what kinds of things might they find funny? Perhaps looking at what makes human babies laugh can provide some ideas.
Babies seem to be amused by nice, safe surprises, such as an object suddenly moving, disappearing and reappearing, making an interesting sound, or changing shape.
Dogs find many surprises frightening, but surprises that are quite obviously safe tend to elicit playful body language. It is critical to ask the dog in front of you what they like, and that means looking for signs of conflict, which will be covered later in the book, and giving the dog many opportunities to end the interaction or retreat. It is important to note that “fun” is not always just the activity itself. Dogs who typically lose games of possession often become less interested in those kinds of games and can take months to recover their confidence after a series of defeats.
They might also become less interested in competing in other scenarios. Likewise, dogs that are bullied during play can become withdrawn around other dogs and even start to become aggressive towards them. When the fun goes out of an activity it can discourage dogs from seeking fun in places where they have found it before, and discourage them from seeking rewards in general. This risk aversion – unwillingness to take risks – can be a manifestation of pessimism.
Evidence shows that animals kept in environments with few opportunities for enjoyable activities (often called “enrichment”) seem to expect fewer positive outcomes for themselves and more negative outcomes. Dogs that are reluctant to take risks might not find the sources of joy and reward that an optimistic, risk-taking dog can find. The less they find and acquire these rewards and positive experiences, the less they expect to find them, and the more risk averse they can become.
Risk-averse dogs can be easy to live with in some ways – not as prone to look for fun and mischief – but training them might be a challenge if they are unwilling to try new behaviours. In contrast, an optimistic dog that expects more positive outcomes might be inclined to risk venturing further or tackling an obstacle to see what the environment has to offer.
This can produce a dog who takes some work to manage off leash but is likely to be relaxed about offering new behaviours and exploring novel activities and environments. This is a dog that is easy to train and resilient to whatever life might throw at them; a dog that finds joy wherever it is available.
What’s fun for some is not necessarily fun for all
Melissa occasionally takes her dogs along a walking trail with a very steep, narrow, somewhat rocky section. We can only guess how this idea coalesced, but one day Erik suddenly got busy attacking Kivi’s legs and trying to push him down the steep trail.
Kivi lost his footing and rolled over and over, out of control, for about 33 feet (10 m) before he regained his feet. Apparently this tickled Erik, because he quickly developed a strategy that could topple Kivi in moments on that steep trail. The length of time between visits allowed Melissa to forget what had happened the previous time, but Erik did not. Every time he started down the trail, he would dart in and expertly attack Kivi’s balance.
Down Kivi would go, and Erik would stand there, watching him roll, and then run after him to try to do it again. Needless to say, Melissa eventually caught on and put a stop to this for Kivi’s well-being and safety, but it remains a good example of what might be considered fun for a dog – probably the same kind of roughhouse nonsense that is fun for young children. Like young children, dogs can also lack the mental ability to appreciate that fun with a friend requires both parties to be enjoying themselves, or that a fun activity could be dangerous.
10 dog breeds that are completely bonkers!
All dogs are individuals and each is full of its own unique personality, but there are some breeds that have a tendency to be sillier than others. Some breeds are just the class clowns of the dog world, always ready to play and making people laugh with their goofy antics. If you’re looking for a pup that’s always up to something crazy, check out these breeds!
1. Bulldog – The Bulldog, or English Bulldog, is a large, short and wrinkly dog known for its outstanding temperament. They make excellent family companions and are active enough to keep up with their owners but lazy enough that they’ll likely be found snoring around the house during the day.
2. Boxer – The Boxer is a very playful and goofy dog loved. The breed is loved by its owners and enthusiasts because of its enthusiastic personality, and the Boxer is always ready to go and make the entire neighbourhood laugh!
3. Pembroke Welsh Corgi – The Pembroke Welsh Corgi has a special appearance with its foxy face and short, stubby legs. The breed’s personality meets its looks as they are energetic, active and playful dogs always looking to have a good time and often entertaining themselves if no one else wants to play.
4. French Bulldog – The French Bulldog is smaller than its English cousin but has every bit as much personality. The breed is adored for its silly looks and its playful, clownish temperament and has become very popular because of these traits.
5. Springer Spaniel – The Springer Spaniel boasts a large personality. Springers are known for being very goofy dogs that are always ready to go out and have a good time. They make great active family companions and are very fun to be around.
6. Yorkshire Terrier – Although tiny, the Yorkshire Terrier is full of a large personality. These little terriers are tenacious and silly, popular not only because of their looks but their goofiness as well. They are active little dogs that are certain to keep their owners on their toys and always laughing.
7. Labrador Retriever – One of the most popular dogs in the world, the Labrador Retriever is renowned for its outstanding temperament. They are active, social and fun-loving dogs that are constantly coming up with new silly antics to keep their families smiling.
8. Miniature Bull Terrier – The Miniature Bull Terrier is a feisty little dog that is full of a clownish personality, always ready to get out and spend quality time with its family. They are excellent family companions and are very social and fun-loving dogs that will keep you going even when you’re tired!
9. Border Collie – The Border Collie is one of the most popular working dogs and while many of their funny tricks are trained, the breed does have a very unique personality. They are very fun-loving dogs that are always on the go, ready to learn the next trick or play a new game. They have clownish personalities but are not suitable for someone that isn’t looking to spend excess time on training.
10. Siberian Husky – The Siberian Husky is an active, fun-loving dog that enjoys spending time with its family. They have no problem entertaining themselves with games they create on their own and because of this, they can be a handful for unprepared owners. For those that love and understand them, though, Sibes are one of the silliest dogs around.
(Article source: Various)